College football: ESPN, BCS hand-in-hand

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 12, 2011

By Scott Pierce
Salt Lake Tribune
A few months ago, Kirk Herbstreit insisted that although ESPN is in business with the BCS, it doesn’t muzzle him in any way when it comes to commenting on it.
On Sunday, he proved that.
Herbstreit took direct aim at the Bowl Championship Series, excoriating this year’s Sugar Bowl matchup — No. 11 (BCS final standings) Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Michigan. The Sugar Bowl bypassed No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Boise State, No. 8 Kansas State and No. 9 South Carolina.
On ESPN’s BCS announcement show, Herbstreit said Virginia Tech “could not have looked worse” in a 38-10 blowout loss to Clemson in the ACC title game. He bemoaned the fact that Baylor and its Heisman quarterback, Robert Griffin III; Boise State and its record-setting QB, Kellen Moore; and Kansas State and its (potential) “coach of the year” Bill Snyder were shut out of BCS games.
“Is that what it comes down to?” Herbstreit said. “BCS at-large selections are all about who can sell tickets and fill hotel rooms?”
It’s tempting to reply, “Duh! You’re just figuring that out now?” Since its origins in 1902, the bowl system that ESPN supports has always been more about who can sell tickets and fill hotel rooms than anything else. To attack it for being what it is doesn’t altogether make sense.
That said, the Sugar Bowl is a joke to anyone who cares about college football.
But make no mistake about it, while ESPN didn’t create the bowl system, it does more than any other single entity to preserve it. Of the 35 games, 33 will air on ESPN or one of its sister networks. That’s 28 on ESPN; two each on ESPN2 and ABC; and one on ESPNU.
Seven of those bowls are owned and operated by ESPN. Obviously, if ESPN didn’t air the other 26 games on its channels, other networks would. But the worldwide leader in sports in fully invested in the bowl system.
That, however, doesn’t keep its on-air analysts from taking the system to task.
Earlier this year, Herbstreit insisted that ESPN has never cautioned him about what he can say about the BCS.
“It doesn’t happen that way,” he said. “Not once has anybody told me what I could say, and I’ve been pretty harsh in my criticism at times.”
Including this week. But what Herbstreit failed to mention on Sunday is that it’s not just about selling tickets and filling hotel rooms, it’s also about television ratings.
ESPN has consistently denied that it exerts pressure on bowl committees to take one team over another. And bowl officials have consistently maintained they don’t get their marching orders from Bristol, Conn.
But it doesn’t have to be that overt. If you’re a bowl official, you want to create the best TV matchup you can to keep ESPN happy.
And they are operating under the misapprehension that small-market teams in non-automatic qualifying leagues can’t draw big TV audiences. The two Fiesta Bowls Boise State played in both did very well in the ratings. But that apparently, doesn’t much matter.
The best thing Boise State could do to get into more BCS games might not be joining the Big East, depending on what the future holds for that league and the BCS itself. It would be getting a few million people to move into the Broncos’ tiny TV market.

NEW YORK — Robert Griffin III’s four years at Baylor have included a serious knee injury, 46 school records, the best season the Bears have had in decades, and now a Heisman Trophy.
He has one more season of eligibility left and could return to school. Or not.
RG3 to the NFL?
“Whether I won the award or not, it wasn’t going to sway me on coming back or not,” Griffin said Saturday night.
Griffin won the 77th Heisman Trophy, beating out Andrew Luck, who has already been penciled in as the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft.